CINCINNATI — Mike Pence recalled Tuesday that he didn’t find out until later that insurgents had chanted «Hang Mike Pence» while hiding in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
As he spoke in a sun-filled atrium of the Duke Energy Convention Center here, gay rights protesters serenaded the former vice president with chants of «F — Mike Pence.»
Shouting from the sidewalk outside and brandishing rainbow flags and homemade signs, the chorus was loud enough to briefly interrupt Pence’s exclusive interview with NBC News.
It was a reminder that almost everywhere the mild-mannered Pence goes, he encounters Americans who feel deep anger at his very presence. At a National Rifle Association conference last month, Pence was the only featured speaker to be greeted with a cascade of lecherous boos.
But Pence, who is slowly making strides toward a 2024 presidential bid, seems unfazed by the vitriol, or by the primary polls that consistently show it. register in a single digit with Republican voters. Instead, he sounds more and more like a candidate who has decided to enter the race but isn’t ready to make it official.
«I hope that before the end of June, we will let people know our decision,» he said. «If we choose to go ahead, this race doesn’t really start until the August debate in Milwaukee.»
What remains less clear is the path to the presidency for a candidate whose traditional conservative politics, establishment bona fides and respect for democratic institutions have gone out of style among Republicans in the Trump era. Many of former President Donald Trump’s staunch supporters treat him as a traitor because he rejected Trump’s pleas to obstruct the electoral vote count that sealed his fate in the 2020 election.
That helps explain why some veteran Republican operatives are speculating that Pence might ultimately drop an offer, even as he travels the country. He was in Cincinnati on Tuesday to speak at a Center for Christian Virtue gala, and plans to visit New Hampshire, the site of the nation’s first primary, later this month.
But while most standby campaigns have staff assembled on the sidelines, Pence’s core team hasn’t expanded and operatives in early states say there isn’t much talk about the outreach of their aides to potential hires.
By contrast, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who ranks second behind Trump and well ahead of the rest of the pack in national polls, has a super PAC that has hired aides and run ads across the country. DeSantis is expected to launch his offer later this month.
Trump, who is considering skipping that first Republican National Committee-sanctioned primary debate, is the clear favorite in a nomination race he has won twice before. And Pence has been reluctant to attack his former boss.
Asked Tuesday whether a jury verdict finding Trump responsible for sexually assaulting and defaming writer E. Jean Carroll altered his view of his former running mate’s fitness for president, Pence stepped aside. .
“I think that’s a question for the American people,” he said, adding that he had never seen Trump sexually assault anyone.
He has repeatedly said that Trump acted recklessly on Jan. 6, but declined to say whether he felt in his gut that the former president incited the riots on Capitol Hill. He frames his stance on that around the legal question of whether Trump’s actions amount to incitement, and suggested that they may not.
«I’m just not convinced that getting bad advice from lawyers and then expressing that opinion in public gets to that level,» Pence said.
Along with the tightrope he would have to navigate between factions of the GOP, Pence seems intent on finding ways to distinguish himself from Trump without throwing any hard punches. That could be a tall order considering his public record of agreeing with Trump on just about everything, from the day he joined the ticket in 2016 to Jan. 6.
“I think people will make their own judgments about the last days of the administration,” Pence said.
Still, it laid out points of departure for Trump that could form the central issues of a primary campaign.
«If I run for the Republican nomination for president, I’m going to speak about American leadership in the world,» he said. «I’m going to talk about the need to continue supporting the military in Ukraine until they push back the Russian invasion.»
Trump has said that he would end the war immediately upon taking office.
Pence said he would push for nationwide restrictions on abortion, referring to the issue as «the call of our time» and saying he should «seize every opportunity» to limit the procedure. Trump has been reluctant to a national abortion ban, but recently pledged to «get something done» if he is elected president again.
He was more aggressive in criticizing Trump for vowing to oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
“The former president’s position on Social Security and Medicare is identical to Joe Biden’s,” Pence said. “Joe Biden’s position is insolvency. He says we will never talk about compassionate rights reforms and the former president has taken the exact same view.»
Pence acknowledged that Trump is the far favorite for the nomination, but said that was «a reflection of how deeply concerned people are about President Biden’s failed policies at home and abroad.»
Because of that, he added, voters are «naturally drawn to the familiar in difficult times.»
What doesn’t seem to appeal to them right now, based on polling data and the fury of both Trump’s base and Democrats, is a Pence campaign.
But the former vice president suggested that the numbers do not worry him.
“Regardless of what the polls show, I believe that Republican voters are looking for new leadership in our party and in the country,” he said.